Grinding special teams tape is only for football junkies who have an unhealthy addiction to football. This writer falls into that bucket.
There is big change on the Las Vegas Raiders’ special teams unit after the departures of Kyle Wilber, Jeff Heath and Erik Harris. They were all core special teams players, who all tallied over 250 snaps on kick teams. Yet, their departure opens up the door for young players: Divine Deablo, Tyree Gillespie, and Tanner Muse to step into these roles. Special teams play will likely be their best chance of getting on the field early on this year.
Let’s rank the top five Raiders’ special teamers, going from No. 5 to No. 1. I am not including specialists (kicker, punter, long snapper):
5. Dallin Leavitt
Leavitt was a head scratcher making the cut for the final roster the last two years. He is a liability on defense, but his role on special teams keeps him safe year after year. Leavitt is heavily involved on fourth down for the Raiders when he is on the active game-day roster.
Logging an average of 23 special teams snaps a game (nine games), Leavitt was a steady presence as a gunner who improved as the year went on. He will continue to be on the roster bubble in 2021, however if he makes the team it will be because a younger player couldn’t beat him out of the depth chart on special teams.
4. Derek Carrier
Derek Carrier is the true definition of a core special teams player, playing on five of six special teams units: Kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, and PAT/Field Goal. Carrier is the only returning Raiders player to accrue over 300 special teams snaps.
Carrier is a hard hat player who brings maximum effort each time he steps onto the field on fourth down. Second on the team in special teams tackles in 2020 with seven, Carrier is exactly what a team needs in a third tight end; a guy willing to bring his lunch pale to work and do what it takes to help the team.
3 things in life are certain:— BD Williams (@BDWilliams18) July 8, 2021
And Derek Carrier running through the end-line on a touchback pic.twitter.com/KBpJxHKO0j
3. Hunter Renfrow
Renfrow is the lone return man to make this list, but his impact securing good field position can’t be under-stated. The Raiders average drive started on the 33 yard line, tied for sixtg best in the NFL in 2020, much of that is due to Renfrow’s uncanny ability to make the first guy miss.
Despite only tallying 55 special teams snaps in 2020, he made those count logging top 6 numbers for punt returners across the board:
- Average return (minimum 14 returns ): 11.2 (6th)
- Total Punt return yards: 265 (6th)
- Returns of 20+ yards: 3 (T-2nd)
Hunter Renfrow never got the credit he was due as a punt returner last season, 2nd best Yds/return in the NFL!— ☠️ (@Raider_Ryan1) March 5, 2021
Can’t slow the Frow!#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/Ao4X0Uj8UT
2. Nicholas Morrow
Morrow wasn’t a core special teams player in 2020. Like Renfrow he is a regular contributor on first-third downs for the Raiders and his big role on defense is likely to continue with his skill set being perfect for what Gus Bradley asks his middle linebacker to do.
However if he doesn’t beat out Nick Kwiatkoski, he has the potential to become a special teams ace for the Raiders. Morrow took 115 snaps on special teams for the Raiders in 2020 and his tape is very good doing so. It’s to be expected that he’s better than your average special teams player considering he’s good enough to be a starter.
1. Keisean Nixon
Nixon has a unique role of special teams ace for the Raiders. There is no better gunner on the current Raiders roster. Nixon wins with agility and speed. Towards the end of the year teams would have to double him and by week 17 he was regularly beating two guys to the ball carrier. The Raiders punt team forced a fair catch on 31.3% of punts, good for 10th best mark in the NFL.
Nixon easily led the team in forced fair catches (a stat I made up) and steadily improved as a corner on punt return as the year went on. He is a great bet to make the active roster because the hole that would be left behind at gunner is simply too vast.
Keisean Nixon will be a Raider this fall, he is the best gunner currently rostered by a wide margin. pic.twitter.com/p10K3xihGj— BD Williams (@BDWilliams18) July 7, 2021
Guys who disappointed:
Despite great athleticism for a fullback, Ingold looked uncomfortable breaking down in open space and attempting to secure a tackle. He also occasionally missed key blocks. His spot is safe, but he could improve in the kicking game.
At 6’2, 205 pounds with 4.4 speed, Johnson is the type of player special teams coaches salivate after. However his size/speed ratio didn’t translate covering kicks and punts in 2020. Johnson had a very difficult time beating press as a gunner and often had poor leverage when attempting to vice the return man. Perhaps his upside as a cornerback in Bradley’s scheme is enough for him to secure a roster spot in 2021.
Robertson was the worst gunner for the Raiders in 2020. He was quite often blocked out of the frame or shoved to the ground. If he gets beaten out by Nevin Lawson, Nate Hobbs, or even Keisean Nixon, there’s really no role for him on the Raiders this season. Let’s all hope he bounces back in a major way in 2021.